England’s health service will use drones to deliver vital chemotherapy drugs

The test will see if drones can cut a four-hour trip down to 30 minutes

Annalisa Russell-Smith / Apian

The UK’s National Health Service has announced that it will test delivering vital chemotherapy drugs via drone to the Isle of Wight. The body has partnered with Apian, a drone technology startup founded by former NHS doctors and former Google employees. Test flights are due to begin shortly, and it’s hoped that the system will reduce journey times for the drugs, cut costs and enable cancer patients to receive treatment far more locally.

The Isle of Wight is an island two miles off the south coast of England with a population just under 150,000. Due to the short shelf-life of most chemotherapy drugs, medicines are either rushed onto the island or patients take the ferry to the mainland. This journey can take up to four hours, while a drone flight can run from Queen Alexandra Hospital to St. Mary’s Hospital in half an hour. Not long after and an additional pilot scheme will take place in Northumbria to see if it’s possible to deliver vital medical supplies at ultra-short notice.

It’s not the first time that drones have been used to deliver vital medicines faster than a conventional courier. Merck and drone company Volansi began testing the delivery of cold-chain medicines to patients in rural North Carolina. Similarly, drone technology has helped move blood supplies across Rwanda, deliver prescriptions to senior citizens in Florida and help with supply drops during COVID-19.

Similarly, the UK’s Royal Mail has tested using autonomous delivery drones to get packages to remote areas. That includes getting vital supplies to the islands of Scilly, Shetland, Orkney and the Hebrides. Much like the NHS trial, Royal Mail said that using drones would reduce carbon emissions and speed up delivery times, especially in far-flung regions where infrastructure costs are too excessive to even think about.